He was, this young man with the round face, an artist. Give him a needle and some thread and a little bit of cloth, fine cloth, wool cloth, nothing but the best cloth, and he could make you anything. He never had to measure, he never had to plan. He just knew. It was this magic, and little else, that my grandfather brought to this country, this land of opportunity. He came here, from a small town in Poland, with his wife and his son and his dreams.
He came speaking Yiddish, a language put together like a hearty beef stew. A little German, a dash of Polish, generous helpings of Hebrew, salted and seasoned with just enough English. He came, like so many others, to the melting pot that was America with names that were unrecognizable and highly unpronounceable. He came, with hopes and aspirations and one good pair of shoes, to Ellis Island, to the
solemn stone building that served as the waiting room for the promised land. The immigration workers, now an upper class, would name these would be citizens, give them simple names, names they could spell, names based on their trades or their tribes. My grandfather took the name Levy. It was a name he could pronounce, a name he could remember.
What mattered was that he had left oppression and pogroms behind him. He had fled to a land that spoke many tongues, except his.He came, as he had left, with tattered clothes and shattered memories. He came to this new land, where schools were as free as spirits, to this land of milk and honey, where all men are created equal. Some more equal than others.
“When I came here,” my grandfather once told me, “I was a nobody. I worked 16 hours a day and 90 hours a week. I worked to become a somebody.”And that’s what he became, a man with a talent and a trade, a family and a future. He never had proper schooling. But he was smart and he was savvy. He would teach himself the one foreign language he needed to know.He would teach himself English. It didn’t matter that he spoke it with a heavy accent. It didn’t matter that he substituted a Yiddish word every sentence or two. What mattered was that he tried.
And now, 95 years after my grandfather came here yearning to be free, there is a controversy in this land, a great political debate about the language our fellow citizens should speak. English, as many of you know, is a hard language to learn. The words have more connotative meaning than almost any other language. At home, to those who understood, my grandfather spoke Yiddish. But outside that little walkup in Brooklyn, he made a deal with this great country. You give me freedom and promise and hope, he said, and I will give you my soul. And I will work to speak your chosen language.
It was a simple enough concept. No matter what you spoke at home, if you wanted a job, you needed to learn English. To be a tailor, it was the common thread. And now, as we continue the great national dialogue started by demagogues and fed by cheesesteak shop owners, we are teetering on tutoring.
Personally, I don’t buy the politics of prejudice. I think every man, woman and child is entitled to free speech and at least one cheesesteak. But if my grandfather, after 25 years in Poland, could learn the language, is it asking too much of those who come here now, those so full of possibility, to at least try?